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Image: U.S. Vice President Mike Pence touches a piece of hardware with a warning label "Do Not Touch" at Kennedy Space Center in Florida

Pence makes a curious case for Trump's 'Space Force'

08/10/18 08:40AM

One of the unfortunate staples of Donald Trump's presidency is that officials in the president's orbit feel compelled to take some of his ridiculous ideas seriously, using them as the basis for actual policy initiatives.

Trump made up a story about millions of illegal ballots being cast in 2016, which was fantasy, but which nevertheless led to the creation of an actual commission on election integrity. More recently, the president convinced himself that first responders in California lack the water they need to combat wildfire, and despite that being completely wrong, administration officials adopted new, real-world policies to accommodate Trump's confusion.

And the president has also said he thinks it'd be cool if the United States had a Space Force, all of which led to yesterday.

Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday laid out details for President Donald Trump's proposed new branch of the U.S. military -- responsible for protecting national security in outer space.

In a speech at the Pentagon, Pence said the new Space Force would be established by 2020.... If it happens, the Space Force would become the sixth branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, equal to the other five, Pence said.

The Department of Defense released a 15-page report Thursday laying out the phases of creating the new branch, which will ultimately need to be approved by Congress.

Sounding very much like an excited kid, Trump tweeted after the vice president's speech, "Space Force all the way!"

Trump's re-election campaign then sent a fundraising appeal to supporters, asking them to vote on their choice for a Space Logo. (One of them is effectively identical to the official NASA logo, but in a different color.)

It's tempting not to take any of this seriously. The trouble is, the Trump administration is now taking the idea very seriously. Indeed, Pence called for the United States to spend $8 billion on the Space Force endeavor.

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Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach talks about the Kansas voter ID law in his Topeka, Kan., office May 12, 2016. (Photo by Dave Kaup/Reuters)

Facing awkward questions, Kansas' Kobach signals change in direction

08/10/18 08:00AM

One of the most closely watched Republican primaries of the year also turned out to be one of the closest. In a contest pitting incumbent Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer against Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the two are nearly tied, with less than 0.1% of the vote separating them.

The problem -- that is, one of the problems -- is that the process in the coming days and weeks will be complex, complete with provisional ballots, mail-in ballots, and a likely recount. Kobach oversees the state's elections, and in the immediate aftermath of Tuesday's primary, he said he was perfectly comfortable overseeing this one, despite the obvious conflict of interest.

Last night, as the Kansas City Star  reported, the notorious secretary of state appeared to adopt a new posture.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach said in a cable news interview Thursday night that he plans to recuse himself from the vote tally process in the face of pressure from Gov. Jeff Colyer and mounting confusion over vote totals.

Kobach said that he would recuse himself in an interview with CNN hours after Colyer had sent a letter demanding that Kobach refrain from instructing county election officials on the counting of ballots in the primary race for governor on a day when the vote total narrowed to roughly 100 votes as multiple counties reported that vote totals were incorrect.

"I'll be happy to recuse myself. But as I say, it really doesn't make any difference. My office doesn't count the votes. The counties do," Kobach said in an interview with host Chris Cuomo.

At the risk of sounding picky, I'm not altogether certain Kobach has, in fact, recused himself from this process. Taking his words at face value, he signaled a willingness to recuse, but that's not quite the same thing as formally stepping aside.

Indeed, a spokesperson for the governor told the Star last night, "We don't have an official recusal," Marr said. "We want to see what that looks like tomorrow. We want to make sure it's not a symbolic recusal. The secretary of state has a substantive role in this process and the recusal needs to be substantive."

Just as important are the steps that led up to Kobach's comments last night -- because despite his claims of detachment, he and his office are already facing some awkward questions.

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Thursday's Mini-Report, 8.9.18

08/09/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* A dramatic move: "In a federal courtroom in Washington on Thursday, a judge heard about something the Trump administration had just done that clearly angered him. The government, he learned, had deported an immigrant mother and daughter who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit the judge was hearing over asylum restrictions. So the judge did something highly unusual: He demanded the administration turn around the plane carrying the plaintiffs to Central America and bring them back to the United States."

* Puerto Rico: "Nearly a year after Hurricane Maria, the government of Puerto Rico stated in a report released Thursday that more than 1,400 people died in the four months after the storm -- a significantly higher death toll than the government has claimed."

* My experience covering cases from courtrooms is limited, but I tend to think Judge T.S. Ellis' antics are tough to defend: "The federal judge overseeing the Paul Manafort trial conceded Thursday morning that he made a mistake in chastising special counsel Robert Mueller's prosecutors a day earlier in front of the jury."

* The proposed media merger went so badly, Sinclair is now facing a lawsuit: "Tribune Media has filed a lawsuit against Sinclair Broadcast Group over their failed merger and is seeking $1 billion in damages."

* California: "A $119.5-million settlement announced Wednesday of claims stemming from the Aliso Canyon gas leak marks the biggest action yet to deal with the health effects and climate damage of the largest release of methane in U.S. history."

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Image: Republicans the House Intelligence Committee vote to release controversial memo on Russia investigation

What Devin Nunes says when he thinks the public isn't listening

08/09/18 02:54PM

As most of you probably know by now, The Rachel Maddow Show obtained a recording of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) speaking at a closed-door fundraiser last week. The California Republican, one of Donald Trump's most important allies on Capitol Hill, had quite a bit to say to GOP donors, and in the audience was someone who works with Fuse Washington, a progressive group in the Northwest that made the recording available to us.

I won't review every detail, but I do want to take a moment to highlight what I considered the most important revelation from Nunes' event. About halfway through the event, the congressman reflected on his role in the Russia scandal investigation and what he sees as the importance of the GOP majority in Congress.

"So therein lies, so it's like your classic Catch-22 situation, where we were at a -- this puts us in such a tough spot. If [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions won't un-recuse and [Special Counsel Robert] Mueller won't clear the president, we're the only ones, which is really the danger. That's why I keep -- thank you for saying that, by the way -- we have to keep all these seats, we have to keep the majority. If we do not keep the majority, all of this goes away."

As Rachel noted on the show last night, "So behind closed doors, when they don't think there's any recording of what they're saying ... the case they're making is that they either need to stop the investigation of the president, they need to stop the Russia investigation, or they need to keep using the power of Congress to impede that investigation, or else, right? Or 'all of this goes away.'

"That's why they want to 'keep the majority.' Those are the stakes for them keeping the majority. They're using the majority to impede the investigation. If they lose the majority the investigation might go forward, and then 'all of this goes away.'"

It's one thing to assume Nunes thinks this way; it's something else to hear Nunes tell an audience that he sees the Republican majority in Congress as some kind of emergency life-preserver for his White House allies, rescuing Trump if no one else will.

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Flowers on a tree bloom near the Treasury Department building in Washington, DC on March 10, 2016. (Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty)

Trump admin reportedly takes aim at financial watchdog office

08/09/18 12:45PM

In the wake of the economic crash a decade ago, Congress and the Obama White House created a series of new safeguards, layers of accountability, and agencies intended to prevent future crises. One of them was something called the Office of Financial Research (OFR), which has been described as the Treasury Department's "eyes and ears," studying financial markets looking for emerging vulnerabilities.

Last year, Donald Trump announced plans to slash the office's budget and make significant changes to its structure. Reuters reported yesterday on the nature of those changes.

The Trump administration moved on Wednesday to shrink a government agency tasked with identifying looming financial risks, notifying around 40 staff members they would be laid off, according to a person familiar with the changes.

The employees at the Office of Financial Research (OFR) were formally told on Wednesday they will lose their jobs as part of a broader reorganization of the agency that was created in the wake of the 2007-2009 global financial crisis, the source said. [...]

Consumer advocates say the bureau provides a critical function by gathering data on areas such as banking, lending and trading from the country's complex web of federal and state regulators to provide a bird's-eye view of system-wide risks.

The trouble is, if OFR officials identified emerging risks, that would likely lead to calls for some kind of regulatory action in financial markets. The Trump administration has given every indication that it opposes such intervention -- making those who might ring the alarm expendable.

This comes on the heels of the Trump administration slashing the budget and staff of the Financial Stability Oversight Council, which was also created in the wake of the Great Recession, and neutering the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 8.9.18

08/09/18 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.

* In Ohio's 12th congressional district, Danny O'Connor (D) picked up a net gain of 190 votes yesterday, but he still trails Troy Balderson (R) by 1,564 votes.

* Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) told the Tampa Bay Times yesterday that Russian operatives have "already penetrated" the voter-registration systems in "certain counties" in Florida. State officials discounted the claims.

* Soon after, the Senate Leadership Fund, a prominent Republican super PAC led by Mitch McConnell's former chief of staff, seemed to attack the Florida senator's age. "It's time for Bill Nelson's caretakers to keep better tabs on the senator's whereabouts," the super PAC said. For the record, Bill Nelson is younger than Mitch McConnell.

* As recently as last year, Corey Stewart, the Republican Party's U.S. Senate candidate in Virginia, delivered public remarks in which he praised Virginia's decision to secede in 1861.

* On a related note, a new statewide poll from Virginia Commonwealth University shows Sen. Tim Kaine (D) leading Stewart (R) by 23 points.

* Voter turnout in Michigan's primaries this week was the highest seen in the state since 1978.

* On a related note, as the Associated Press noted, Michigan's Democrats are currently set to field an all-female ticket for statewide offices this year. That said, the party's gubernatorial nominee, Gretchen Whitmer, still has to choose a running mate.

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Giuliani points to the questions he doesn't want Trump to answer

08/09/18 11:34AM

It's probably best not to pay too close attention to the day-to-day haggling over Special Counsel Robert Mueller's interest in talking to Donald Trump. Sometime soon, either the president's lawyers will agree to an interview or they won't.

But once in a while, it's hard not to marvel at the sort of things Rudy Giuliani is willing to say out loud.

Giuliani told Axios that there are two topics the president's lawyers want to rule out in order to agree to a Trump sit-down with Mueller:

1. Why Trump fired FBI Director James Comey.

2. What Trump said to Comey about the investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Giuliani mentioned those as if they were minor details -- totally reasonable areas for Mueller to agree to avoid.

Two weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal  reported that Giuliani hoped to exclude the general topic of obstruction from any Mueller-Trump interview, but this latest report suggests the former mayor is now narrowing the focus a bit, pointing to two specific areas of inquiry that he'd like to keep off-limits.

Or put another way, the special counsel is investigating possible presidential obstruction of justice, and the Trump's lawyer's plan involves a deal in which the special counsel agrees in advance not to ask the president about the times he probably obstructed justice.

Giuliani seems indifferent to how this makes his client look. As we recently joked, imagine a hypothetical scenario in which law enforcement wanted to search a suspect's home, and the person responded, "OK, you're welcome to look around, but only if you agree in advance not to look in my shed." It's the sort of thing that might lead one to suspect there's something incriminating in that guy's shed.

Giuliani's pitch is similar: federal investigators can ask Trump questions, but only if they agree in advance not to explore certain crimes the president may have committed.

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Image: US House of Representatives passes short-term measure to fund the government

Does the GOP's 'zero tolerance' policy on ethical lapses still exist?

08/09/18 10:56AM

It was eight years ago this week that House Republican leaders, confident about reclaiming the majority in the 2010 midterms, started making promises about maintaining the highest ethical standards. Virginia Republican Eric Cantor, who'd become House Majority Leader a few months later, acknowledged the GOP congressional scandals of the past, but said they wouldn't be tolerated going forward.

"I think that as Republicans emerge as a new governing majority, it is incumbent upon us to institute a zero-tolerance policy," Cantor said at the time, adding that when it comes to ethical transgressions, Republicans have "learned our lesson."

So, in the wake of Rep. Chris Collins' (R-N.Y.) arrest, is the zero-tolerance policy still in effect? In fairness, it'd be an overstatement to say House Republicans have done literally nothing in the wake of yesterday's developments. Roll Call  reported yesterday afternoon:

Speaker Paul D. Ryan has removed Rep. Chris Collins from the House Energy and Commerce Committee, following Collins indictment Wednesday on charges of insider trading and lying to authorities.

"Insider trading is a clear violation of the public trust. Until this matter is settled, Rep. Collins will no longer be serving on the House Energy and Commerce Committee," Ryan said in a statement.

That's not nothing, and I'm glad the House Speaker took fairly quick action, but the developments suggest there are perhaps some nuances to "zero tolerance."

For example, despite the seriousness of the allegations, and despite the evidence of alleged wrongdoing, no one from the Republican leadership has called on Collins to resign or retire. What's more, the party's campaign arm has not made any kind of official announcement about ending its support for the New York Republican's re-election campaign.

In other words, while Collins is out on bail, he remains a House Republican lawmaker in good standing, his loss of a committee seat notwithstanding.

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